Heading into Round 12 Port Adelaide was at a crossroads.
A top four fancy at the start of the year, and minor premiers just two years ago, the Power were stuck in the lower ranges of the ladder and struggled to both effectively win the ball, and move it when they had it in hand.
They had also been caught out by Essendon in the wet the week before.
Before the team selections were made, coach Ken Hinkley hinted to the media that they would play smaller rather than taller, with a wry grin on his face.
By that stage, Hinkley had decided to go into the game without a true ruck.
Instead, forwards Jeremy Finlayson, Charlie Dixon and midfielder Sam Powell-Pepper shouldered the load against Richmond. While they lost the game, they did win the clearance battle in the middle.
Port’s ruckless experiment is far from the first foray into this space.
Sydney legend Adam Goodes won a Brownlow Medal in the ruck, but in practice operated more like a supersized midfielder, beating lumbering bigs on the ground.
At 191cm he tended to lose the hitout battle, but outworked his direct opponent around the ground.
But using an undersized second ruck option is different to being completely undersized. So how can teams get away without picking a true ruck?
Rucking the trend
Going small when others go tall isn’t unique to footy.
In fact, the world just got a reminder of the most prominent current version when the Golden State Warriors took their fourth NBA title in eight years, thanks in part to their “death lineup”.
The death lineup features the 6’6″ defensive maestro Draymond Green at centre, running his far taller opponents off the floor while protecting the paint.
In the AFL the theory is similar. Going small gives you a speed advantage, at the expense of potency in the air. It’s what Hinkley hinted at when he suggested playing without a ruck against Richmond.
“We’re really pleased with the end result. To be fair, we ended up winning clearances so it’s a pretty good performance by our midfield group collectively to be able to,” Hinkley told reporters after the game.
“Because we got beat in hitouts — which we knew that was going to be on the cards with us. So we managed that really well I thought.”
Port managed just 18 hitouts to 41 from the Toby Nankervis led Richmond across the game.
Crucially, Port was able to win the clearance battle, reading the hitouts more effectively than their counterparts. Port’s makeshift rucks fought hard to limit where Richmond could effectively direct hitouts.
Port’s rucks used their body positioning to effectively deny easy access to the ball. Around the ground, Port looked more attacking than they had in weeks, speeding the game up. While they narrowly lost, they looked re-energised.
Last week against Sydney, Port shifted up a step further. After an injury to first game ruck Brynn Teakle early in the game, the Power were forced to go ruckless again. The move helped take the game away from the Swans.
The ability for the Power rucks to contest and compete around the ground frustrated Sydney ruck Peter Ladhams, with the Swans’ big lashing out during the game.
The extra mobility of the Power presented open taller targets around the ground, critical against a Swans side that can be left exposed on the counter attacks. Despite giving up raw height to Sydney, they gained in being able to use what height they had.
For most of the year, Port has been the worst team in the league in terms of centre clearance scoring differential.
However, when they went ruckless the Power were able to largely nullify their opponents from the middle, and broke even in the contests.
Hinkley’s decision to shift to a ruckless strategy wasn’t without precedent.
In 2018, an early injury crisis at the club left it without any fit and mature rucks. That spell of ruckless play saw them win three of five games, likely helping Port’s ability to adapt and Hinkley’s willingness to experiment.
The Power aren’t the only side who have had to resort to going ruck free this year, and aren’t the only side to succeed while doing so.
When both Rowan Marshall and Jack Hayes were injured late in the game against GWS on the big stage of Friday night footy in Canberra, the Saints’ narrow 15 point lead looked vulnerable against the two headed ruck hydra of Matt Flynn and Braydon Pruess.
For a side looking to prove itself worthy of the top four, holding the ground in the middle would be key to winning the game.
In the last quarter the Giants were able to win 31 of 32 hitouts largely through Pruess. Normally, this would indicate that GWS would be able to dominate first possession, and the rest of the contest.
Instead, St Kilda won first disposal 17 times of those 32, effectively limiting their biggest advantage.
“It’s interesting around the ball sometimes. Sometimes when you actually lose the hitouts by that much you’re not worrying about your bloke,” St Kilda coach Brett Ratten told the ABC after the game.
“You’re not watching what your bloke’s doing. You’re just watching the opposition. So we have then three onballers and other players around who are just scanning him and what he does so they’re not getting caught up in this ‘we win one, they win one’. So it’s all the focus on just watching their ruckman.”
With Pruess playing just his third game at the Giants, that important ruck-midfield combination was absent when it was needed most. Late in the game Pruess and Flynn were relying on taps to the feet of the contest or big punches forward, often with little variation.
Some clubs utilise calls to specific players in stoppages, others to zones.
Whatever method GWS used on that Friday night, St Kilda decoded it easily.
The Saints set up well on the defensive side of the stoppage, limiting the damage that the Giants could do even if they got a touch on the ball first.
The mobile St Kilda bigs were also able to outwork the taller Pruess around the ground, and at the foot of the contest.
Ratten commended Josh Battle and his ability to outwork the Giants’ bigs at ground level after the game.
Despite losing the battle in the air, Battle won the war on the ground — and more importantly the Saints won the game.
Ruck it and see
Generally speaking, winning the hitouts does not particularly suggest winning the match.
Since the introduction of ruck nominations in 2017, winning a lot of hitouts has often been as useful as winning very few of them.
Teams have become better at knowing how to compete despite losing the aerial battle.
Winning clearances, however, has a more considerable impact. The first touch in the ruck is far less useful than the first real use of the ball, which often dictates the pace and direction of play.
It may be widely understood that raw hitouts don’t represent the midfield battle, but even an edge in hitouts to advantage in a match has only a loose relationship with clearance effectiveness.
Winning hitouts and clearances don’t always go hand in hand, but a good ruck and midfield group have some small edge in turning the former into the latter. Some sides base significant parts of their game around winning the contest.
Last year the Suns were without captain Jarrod Witts for most of the season, robbing the team of a big part of their identity.
While the Suns had some strong weeks, they largely struggled without their talisman. Melbourne, absent Max Gawn in the coming weeks, faces a similar challenge.
Going ruckless seems to work best in a few situations. It seems to work well as a surprise tactic, especially in wetter conditions. This surprise factor can also help a makeshift ruck after an in-game injury.
Ruckless sides seem to have a real mobility advantage against slower primary rucks, and where they have ample other tall targets around the ground.
The best tap rucks present the biggest challenge to the strategy, as do the most mobile traditional rucks.
If Port continues to experiment in the ruck, and keeps rising up the ladder, a new approach to rucking in the AFL could be on the horizon.
Source: AFL NEWS ABC